The wraps came off the new National Art Center in late January, revealing Kisho Kurokawa’s tour de force in all its glory. The sinuous, bulging facade is remarkable enough, but it’s the vast atrium inside that undulating skin of celadon-green glass that really stops you in your tracks.
As you enter this gargantuan space, filled with light and crosshatched shadows, you pause involuntarily, as if for mental genuflection. But this is not some cathedral of echoing emptiness. It is a public area — you enter free of charge — where people are already congregating, to meet, chat or just read the newspaper over coffee from one of the self-service concessions. It is also currently the most in-demand lunch venue in the city.
No building can aspire to landmark status these days unless it boasts a restaurant with serious name-brand recognition. The National Art Center has achieved a major coup by enrolling French master-chef Paul Bocuse, for this is not just his first foray abroad but the first operation he has ever sanctioned outside his native Lyon.
He could not have picked a more impressive location. Brasserie Paul Bocuse Le Musee nestles atop a massive inverted cone that rises three stories high from the ground-floor lobby. The tables are arranged in tight formation around the periphery, with views of the Roppongi skyline visible through the dome-like contours of the steel-and-glass outer wall. The effect is one part luxury liner to two parts Star Wars launch pad.
And where in all this is Chef Bocuse? And where, for that matter, is the kitchen? The answer to both is: far away. Although the Brasserie bears the maestro’s imprimatur, day-to-day operations are in the hands of the Hiramatsu group, an extremely professional organization whose founder is a Michelin-starred chef in his own right.
If you are dreaming of culinary magic or hoping to re-create the experience of dining chez Bocuse in France, then you will be mightily disappointed. If you are familiar with the quality of ingredients, attention to detail and sleek expertise that chef Hiroyuki Hiramatsu brings to all his ventures, then you will not be unduly surprised to find that style vastly outweighs content. And that’s exactly what the ladies who lunch — and they comprise the vast majority of the clientele here — expect.
There is little on the fixed-price dejeuner du jour menu (1,800 yen for two courses; 2,500 yen for three) that will set a foodie’s heart aflutter. Our starters included a terrine paysanne that was delicious but far from rustic, the tranche of pork meat studded with brilliant green pistachios and nestled among salad greens. The marine of salmon was a nicely constructed blend of soft pink fish meat and crisp young cucumber, topped with a generous dab of dill-infused cream.
The main courses were equally easy on the eye and the palate. A small fillet of suzuki (sea bass) was presented on a bed of diced tomatoes with dried, sliced quenelles, a Lyonnaise specialty resembling firm, round gnocchi. The navarin of lamb came with a vivid-red (if unorthodox) tomato sauce. While beautifully presented, both were slightly overcooked and less than piping hot when they reached the table — hardly surprising since all the food has to be whisked up by elevator from the kitchen several floors below.
Ditto the desserts, which were good but unexciting — just as you would expect from a restaurant at a museum, especially one that is still finding its feet. Indeed, we were impressed just how efficiently the whole operation was running, since they are stretched to maximum capacity (right now they are serving as many as 700 people each lunchtime).
Given the inevitable crowds and the fact that they only take reservations for the evening (after 7:30 p.m.), there are three ways to approach Brasserie Paul Bocuse. If you want to have lunch, arrive early and bring a good book to read as you queue (there are some chairs provided), while your dining partner(s) drift off and look at the exhibits.
Alternatively, you can roll up at around 2:30 p.m. and walk straight in. You will have to order off the a la carte menu (entrees around 1,400 yen; main dishes 2,600 yen and up) but at least you will not feel so hemmed in. You will be able to bask in the afternoon light, sipping on your wine and watching the U.S. military choppers as they fly in and out of the helipad next door.
The third alternative — though not one that we’d necessarily recommend — would be to come for dinner. You are likely to have the restaurant (and that beautiful shell of a building) virtually to yourself. By all accounts, it is likely to be a rather sad experience. And be warned, after the museum closes, the Brasserie can only be accessed by a gate that’s a long, circuitous hike from the subway station.
L’Artemis sprouts a casual younger sibling
Some of the tastiest French cuisine in Tokyo is being produced in small neighborhood restaurants by young, creative, committed chefs at prices that put the big-name operations to shame. There can be few better examples of this than L’Artemis in Harajuku, which we extolled in these pages last year.
So we were particularly happy to hear that it now has a simpler, more casual sibling. Open since December, Bistrot d’Artemis has the classic, old-style Parisian look, with large mirrors, art nouveau lamps, tables wedged close together and an open kitchen that delivers honest no-frills cooking.
Chef Kenji Takashima is still in his 20s but already has years of experience in the south of France. He cooks with great confidence and finesse. His cassoulet is warming and hearty, although not rugged enough perhaps for some tastes. His boudin noir (black pudding) is almost delicate. And the venison pie (ezo-jika pai-zutsumi) we tried the other day was outstanding, its rich meat spiked with Himalayan black truffles (more for texture than flavor) and served with a dark wine reduction sauce that was nothing short of delectable.
The desserts are less impressive, but there are plenty of reasonably priced bottles on the wine list — we picked out a lovely Rhone red, Les Amis des Boussiere (excellent value at 4,410 yen). Better still, the dining room is entirely no-smoking (there are a couple of outside tables for those who want to light up or just like watching the traffic) and cellphones are discouraged. Needless to say, though, the word is already out about Bistrot d’Artemis and with just 30 seats, it is full every night of the week.
You will find it close to the northern entrance to the Meiji-Jingu precincts, by a busy intersection on Meiji-dori, about 5 minutes’ walk from the South Exit of Yoyogi JR station.